Monsignor Vella: We are the only point of reference for all Malagasy people

Aid to the Church in Need accompanies Pope Francis’ trip to Madagascar with a series of projects in support of the local Church, including thousands of Mass intentions for priests in several dioceses, contributions to the formation of religious and candidates for the priesthood, and subsistence aid for contemplative nuns. In particular, considering the serious health situation in a country where in recent months more than 1,200 people have died after contracting measles in the absence of a vaccine, ACN will donate vaccines and medical care to 69 seminarians of the Major Seminary of St. Paul VI in Antsiranana.

The visit of Pope Francis, who arrives on the island thirty years after John Paul II, is much awaited, as reported to ACN by Monsignor Rosario Vella, Bishop of Moramanga. “Our hope is that the Holy Father can rekindle hope in the hearts of the Malagasy, who have been trying for so long to change society without succeeding, and at the same time bring peace to a society that is strongly divided even within families, villages and society”.

In the centre of the picture: Monsignor Rosario Vella, Bishop of Moramanga.

In the centre of the picture: Monsignor Rosario Vella, Bishop of Moramanga.

For almost forty years the Italian prelate has been in Madagascar, and he has been talking about the great excitement at the Pope’s next visit to the island where, although Catholics number only about 8 million of the 25 million inhabitants, the Catholic Church provides indispensable support for the entire population. “If people need treatment, they come to our clinics, while the parents send their children with faith to the schools we have set up even in the most remote villages. And then each parish manages projects related to agriculture or health care programs that benefit the faithful of all religions. The Catholic Church here has always been the only point of reference for everyone”, says Monsignor Vella.

Although rich in mineral and natural resources, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Almost half of the children are malnourished, the illiteracy rate is 31% and only 15% of the population has access to electricity. “There are families that do not even have the money to care for their children and this is unacceptable”, says the prelate, noting that the Church absolutely needs economic support from abroad. “The aid that comes to us from bodies like ACN is truly invaluable and allows us to carry out our work”.

ACN accompanies Pope Francis’ visit to Madagascar by supporting projects for the local church.

ACN accompanies Pope Francis’ visit to Madagascar by supporting projects for the local church.

The Church that Pope Francis will meet from 6 to 8 September in the Great Island, is also a Church concerned about the rapid advance of Islam, especially in the northern area of the country. “There are plans, supported from abroad, to Islamise many parts of Madagascar”, says Monsignor Vella.  “Recently I visited villages located in the woodlands of the diocese of Ambanja and there are numerous mosques under construction, without there being any Islamic faithful. We bishops are concerned because people convert to Islam after having been pressured or with the promise of economic incentives”.

In a country ravaged by poverty, corruption and entrenched attitudes, the visit of the Holy Father is good news for its people, 58% of whom are Christians.

In the diocesan grounds of  Soamandrakizay, in Androhibe on the southern fringes of the capital Antananarivo, the authorities are preparing a vast 60-hectare site in readiness for the great outdoor Mass which will be celebrated by Pope Francis on Sunday, 8 September 2019. This will be the first visit to the island by a Pope since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1989.

At that time Lazarist Father Pedro Opeka was already working here and had the pleasure of welcoming the Polish Pope. Speaking to ACN, he explained that people are eagerly awaiting the visit of the present Pope. « It’s going to be crazy! », he says with a smile. « He will be coming here, to the former rubbish tip which we transformed into a village. It’s like a consecration! » . Indeed, it will be a blessing that will set the seal on a project initiated on behalf of the poorest of the poor back in 1989, the very year of the visit by Pope John Paul II, and which in the 30 years since then has helped over 500,000 destitute people.

Lazarist Father Pedro Opeka.

Lazarist Father Pedro Opeka.

The fifth poorest country in the world

As someone who has known Malgasy society since 1975, Father Pedro is able to paint a portrait that contains both light and shadows. Madagascar was already poor when he first arrived there; however, he has seen the poverty actually increase since then. The throngs of simple country people who made up the majority of the population of the island at the time are rubbing shoulders today with urban dwellers struggling to find work. Tensions are growing. “30 years ago I could travel wherever I wanted on my adopted island”, Father Pedro recalls. “Today that’s no longer possible, given the situation in the country, which is bordering on civil war.” Currently Madagascar is the fifth poorest country in the world according to the IMF. The Church and its missionaries represent a last fragile bastion against the vast wave of poverty that is sweeping across the country. “They are the only ones preventing the country from falling apart”, he insists.

Nonetheless, he explains that the Madagascans are a resilient people, and there is still a possibility that the situation could change for the better. “Wherever I go, people ask me if I can give them work. They have no higher expectation than that! They have an incredible energy to offer.” In his view the island has suffered above all from its abandonment by the politicians. For although the land beneath their feet is rich with mineral wealth, especially aluminium and nickel, barely 1% of this wealth comes back to benefit the country as a whole. “At a broader level there is a mentality of entrenched thinking, of institutionalised corruption, which continues to undermine the future of Madagascar”, Father Pedro laments.

The hour of truth for the island

He does, however, see a possible hope in the new Madagascan president, Andry Rajoelina, who was elected in 2018. This youthful head of state, born in 1974, gained the votes above all of the ordinary people in society, and he has promised them that he “will not forget them”. For his part, Father Pedro is willing to give him a chance, but he warns, “I’ll give him two years to see what he does in practice… If he doesn’t improve matters, then I will never believe another political leader again.” Many other people appear to share the cautious view of Father Pedro, for whom the country now has its back to the wall. “If reforms are not made, then Madagascan society will explode”, he believes.

The same concern about the situation in the country is shared by Franciscan Father Jacques Tronchon, whom ACN is currently supporting in an impressive project for the rural reintegration of Malgache families living in great poverty and inhuman conditions in the great suburban slums around the capital. “The struggle against extreme poverty which has been on-going for a long time now in Madagascar is still a major challenge today. The excesses of various different governments have only increased the difficulties, whereas this large country is full of potential and can claim some major successes in several regions. But the ancient antagonisms between the different regions in the country and the economic situation resulting from the power struggles between the major political forces – to say nothing of the climatic problems linked to the seasonal cyclones – make it very difficult to achieve a harmonious development of this beautiful country”, he says.

Madacascar: Pope Francis is shortly to visit this large island nation, teetering on the edge of the abyss.

Madacascar: Pope Francis is shortly to visit this large island nation, teetering on the edge of the abyss.

The country is indeed divided, including along religious lines. The ancestral pagan religions still have great influence in society and at the same time all kinds of different sects, often rival ones, are proliferating alongside the major Christian denominations. Although, as Father Jacques explains, “the leadership of the Catholic Church is very much in evidence thanks to the powerful presence of the dioceses and the many different religious congregations, along with the social projects they have developed in every different field.”

But despite all the differences, he is convinced that “without a doubt, there is a whole People of God who will come from every corner of this great island to welcome Pope Francis and give thanks together with him.”

The apostolic visit of Pope Francis to Madagascar will include a time of prayer together with the contemplative religious from all over the island. This will take place in the chapel of the Carmelite sisters of Saint Joseph of Antananarivo.  Sister Maria Maddalena, the prioress of the Carmel of Saint Joseph of Antananarivo in Madagascar, expressed her joy: “I must share this good news with you so that I can thank you once again for all you have done for our community and so that you too can share in our joy in welcoming the Holy Father”. The roof of this chapel was in fact repaired with help from ACN, so that it can be in a fitting condition to welcome the Pope. As Sister Maria explains, “The visit by Pope Francis is a great grace for us, and I see more and more people coming to visit us each day. I’m sure that this visit will bear much fruit, and we owe this to the generosity of our benefactors, which is why I want to express all my gratitude towards them.”

During the past year 2018 ACN supported the work of the Church in Madagascar to the value of over 1.1 million Euros.

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.